Eternal song – played on a bana

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Atul visits Madhya Pradesh, to meet Gond tribal artists and an elusive bana player.

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I first heard about the Gond tribes when Osho talked about their life and culture. He spoke about the time he spent with them and learned about their ways of life. The Gond tribe is 1.3 million strong, spread out through Madhya Pradesh and neighbouring states. Osho’s main interest in their culture was the system of ghotuls. Ghotuls are places in the centre of the village where the youth live together and can form sexual bonds freely. While spending three years in a ghotul they find their right partner and then get married. Osho called this concept revolutionary and advocated that if introduced in modern society we would get rid of many negative sexual conditionings. He had also mentioned the absence of rape and sexual violence in this tribe. (read the excerpt from The Beloved)

I was living in Delhi when I had my first encounter with Gond tribal art, especially their paintings of the Tree of Life which I had seen in exhibitions at ‘Delhi Haat’. The paintings of their sacred trees, Mahua and Saga, with birds, animals and humans in play inspired me. I was hooked and started collecting tribal art. For this purpose, in December 2016, I made a trip to Bhopal with Deep Bhangoo, a travel consultant, to meet tribal artists. I had also read a lot about their musical traditions and the bana players. Bana is an instrument that looks much like a violin.

When I landed at Bhopal airport I was welcomed by Gond tribal paintings on display at the airport. That set the mood for the entire trip. I visited Bhopal Bhavan and the new Tribal Art Museum and met artists like Subash Vyam, Japani Shyam, Nankushiya Shyam, in the museums but also in their homes. They are all of the family of Jangarh Singh Shyam, the master Gond tribal artist. They gave me all necessary contacts to meet a bana player, but it was going to be a two-day journey by car. I was so intrigued by this instrument because the bana player is the central pillar to his tribe. He is the musician and carries the storyteller’s energy. Being a musician myself I considered it really important to meet the bana player and understand the creative role he is playing.

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After four days in Bhopal we started off to Jabalpur. On the way, after about 80 km, we stopped at the Bhimbetka caves. These are one of the Unesco World Heritage sites. They have tribal paintings that go back to the stone age. After our stopover in Jabalpur we continued to Patangarh village in the Dindori district, the heartland of the Gond tribes. It is close to Amarkantak, the point where the Narmada river originates.

Patangarh is the village where the artist Jangarh Singh Shyam was discovered by Jagdish Swaminathan, a painter who was given the job to build a new museum for tribal arts in Bhopal. He set out looking for artistic expressions in tribal areas and on his travels he came across an exceptional painter, Jangarh. He saw beautiful paintings hanging on the walls of his house. He then gave him canvas, colours and brushes and asked him to paint. Jangarh created masterpieces which set a new journey for Gond tribal art.

As the sun was setting we made our way to the neighbouring village, Garak Matta, where I was finally to meet Pradhan Marawi, the bana player, and was invited to his home. In a short time we were able to build a bond and we travelled musically to different eras. He was mostly quiet in the beginning, then he talked a little (Gond people speak Hindi) and then he played his bana for 15 minutes. Then I asked him if I could play on his instrument and played it for him, about which he was very surprised. He was of the view that only someone with a certain gift can get music out of the bana. That opened him up to me. The session then turned into an unending jugalbandi where I sang and then he sang. We continued into the middle of the night, which was the night of Christmas 2016.

I heard from him stories from the origin of mankind to the great Gond queen, Rani Durgavati, the queen who built the temples of Khajuraho, which is another Unesco World Heritage site and of which Osho has spoken extensively in his lectures on Tantra.

At some point Pradhan offered me a drink of mahua. Mahua is an incredible, locally-made liquor made from the flowers of the mahua tree. I say ‘incredible’ because it has a sweet and at the same time a slightly bitter taste, and after drinking I had a terrible ache in my stomach, which I was told was normal as it increases elimination. I went to the toilet and made a nice dump. I was never so happy with the food I was usually having in Madhya Pradesh. I was glad that finally there was something in a tiny village of Madhya Pradesh which made me feel so good.

The next morning I looked at beautiful tribal art paintings in Pradhan’s house and walked around the village, seeing the natural rhythms unfolding; people setting off for the river in the morning and going to the fields for the day’s work, and then to bathe. I had bought from Pradhan’s son, who is a painter, beautiful pieces of Tree of Life paintings.

The Tree of Life appears in all mythologies and religions of the world. For instance, in the Sanchi Stupa near Bhopal the enlightened ones are depicted as the Tree of Life. A wise man in Punjab, I had met in 2011, described the universe as a giant tree, where the earth descends deeper into matter through the roots of the tree, but one out of a million roots changes direction and thrives upwards, again breaking the ground of matter, and rises to become another tree of life or an enlightened one.

After making beautiful connections with the villagers, all Gond people, we headed back to Jabalpur where we went to see the Moulshree tree where Osho attained enlightenment. It was a pleasure to see this tree and also, not far from where he attained enlightenment, a giant statue of Rani Durgavati, the Gond queen who had built the Khajuraho temples. Osho thought these temples to be the highest peak of philosophical growth in India. The two most powerful forces of Indian philosophical thought.

Prem Atul aka Dr Sunny SandhuPrem Atul (aka Dr Sunny Sandhu) took sannyas from Ma Dharm Jyoti. He is currently running Atelier OM, a meditation centre and tribal art gallery ‘Atelier OM’ on the French Riviera.

Video by the author, photos in slide show by the author, from the internet and by Collin Key

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